Artist: Sufjan Stevens
Album: "Carrie & Lowell"
Songs: "Fourth of July," "Should Have Known Better"
Notes: The elusive, Detroit raised, Sufjan Stevens returns, banjo in tow. It's been five years since the man's last proper album, and even that was a departure. 2010's "The Age of Adz" was a loud and ambitious electronic album. He'd said that he was tired of making indie-folk at the time. He also left behind the cutesy concepts of his early records, like the state-themed Michigan and Illinois.
What's great about the new album is it marks a return to his core sound, which is to say: lightly picked acoustics and taut atmosphere. But it retains the personal bent of the last record. I mean, it's even named after Sufjans' mother and stepfather, Carrie & Lowell. You get the sort of detailed storytelling prowess and conflicted exploration of faith that you might hear on a Mountain Goats album, but with the intimacy and hush of Simon & Garfunkel or Bon Iver.
Artist: Laura Marling
Album: "Short Movie"
Songs: "False Hope," "Walk Alone"
Notes: I wanna highlight an album that might've been overshadowed last week by the arrival of Courtney Barnett. English artist Laura Marling is another import who does Americana very well, and very differently. She's more folksy, but on "Short Movie," her new album, she plugs in. It's the first time she has gone electric.
Marling is excellent at infusing angst into acoustic strum, and she does that here too. But even those songs sound more agitated than her last album, "Once I Was an Eagle." That was a record about breaking up with a boy, Marcus Mumford, actually. This one is about breaking up with society, or herself maybe.
She actually left the U.K. and spent two years in Los Angeles after finishing her last album. She taught yoga, read books, wrote poetry and took solo trips to Joshua Tree. She didn't tell the people she met that she even makes music and it seemed like she wasn't so sure about that anymore anyway.
Thankfully, Marling returned from the wilds with 13 more songs. This is the 25-year-old's fifth album in seven years, and it's great: live, loud, a little psychedelic.
Artist: Lila Downs
Album: "Balas y Chocolate"
Songs: "Balas y Chocolate," "La Patria Madrina"
Notes: Balas y Chocolate — bullets and chocolate? A rather darker twist on the old spoonful of sugar helping the medicine go down, perhaps. But it sums up the conditions of Mexico 2015, in the view of Lila Downs. Downs has long mixed seemingly contrasting images, not to mention musical styles, through 11 albums in a singularly dynamic career. Born in a small town in Oaxaca (where her mother was from), but spending much of her childhood in Minnesota (her father’s home), she celebrates her Mexican origins, but with an expansive worldview and voracious intellect and artistry. She’s long placed village folk songs alongside soaring rock and yearning ballads, put metal next to mariachi, even explored the aesthetic overlaps of Mexican street music with Eastern European Jewish klezmer.
This album No. 12 is what it all led to, a boldly vibrant statement of both her life and her country’s, in which dire tragedy and hopeful determination combine seamlessly and naturally, as do rancheras and metal-edged hip-hop. Balas y chocolate. And, in fact, all of that is in the title track, dedicated "to the children who migrate crossing borders, on the Latin American cacao route," a very perilous journey. But as the song switches styles, it becomes more poetic, more fever-dream metaphor for personal survival through the many bullets of any life’s road, a horrifying yet familiar litany she recites in the course of the song. It’s as powerful as it is compelling. "I’m escaping to chocolate," she sings at one point. "You are my chocolate."
The album’s tone throughout is informed by the political (the abduction and apparent murder of 43 students in the state of Guerrero last year is a major presence here) and the personal (motherhood with her son approaching 5, and darkness with her husband and collaborator Paul Cohen dealing with serious health issues). Día de Los Muertos, the Mexican festivities both honoring and mocking death, is a thread running through the album.
"La Patria Madrina," the first single, is a defiant lament for a Mexico under siege of drug lords and industrialists and a hopeful call for action via cultural and political will, more forceful for the presence of her duet partner, Colombian star Juanes. (Mexico's Juan Gabriel guests on another track.) The title of this song translates as "My Home Country," literally the godmother country. It’s a protest song in the classic sense, wondering what happened to the values of Latin America, “the dreams of Simon Bolivar, Jose Marti, Vicente Guerrero.” Those dreams live in Downs, exuberantly manifest in this album, a range of musics and emotions, complementing and contrasting, in rich harmony — an embodiment of the ideals she holds for her homeland.
Artist: The Go! Team
Album: "The Scene Between"
Songs: "Blowtorch," "The Art of Getting By"
Notes: It’s March Madness, so a perfect time for a pep rally — well, one with maybe the Jesus and Mary Chain making the music. That, more or less, is the sound of the Go! Team, the boisterous, cheery spirit of one with the fuzzy, densely layered sonic rush of the other.
The Go! Team emerged from Brighton, England, in the mid-2000s with a ridiculously boisterous sound as for all intents a one-man project of Ian Parton with a few guests. When the debut album Thunder, Lightning, Strike took off in the UK, Parton pieced together a band to perform at clubs and festivals and the Go! Team became a going concern. The shows, including one here at the Troubadour, were giddy affairs, art without pomposity, cheerleading without the pompoms. Never really a full-time band, recordings and performances became sporadic.
Now a decade later, for just the fourth album and first in four years, Parton has gone back to how it started, basically doing everything himself and bringing in a few friends to fill it out. For the most part, that’s five female singers — Doreen Kirchner being the one we heard on "Blowtorch," along with Samira Winter, Casey Sowa, Annabelle Cazes and Shi Lu.
It was a smart move, the sound tight and confident, the melodies at the core, soaring and always smile-inducing. And not empty smiles — the lyrics explore a range of emotions, not all cheery, but always with an underlying optimism fitting with the DIY initiative behind it. As one song title puts it, it’s all about "The Art of Getting By," a point boosted even more by being along with the title track one of two featuring the London African Gospel Choir. The Jesus and Mary Chain taking it to church? Let’s Go!